I’ve been sitting here trying to think of an adequate way to describe exactly what it is that Sonny Chiba does and wears in this second film in Kinji Fukasaku’s highly enjoyable, highly influential Battles without Honor and Humanity series of films that delve into the world of organized crime and the role it played in rebuilding post-war Japan. The closest I can come up with to summarize the acting display by Chiba is to say that you should try to imagine William Shatner and Jimmy Walker being merged into one creature, which the director then instructs to “stop being so subtle.”
Chiba is one half of the two characters this second entry in the series focuses on, relegating characters like Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono from part one to supporting players. The year is 1952, though as with the first film, everyone still dresses like it’s 1972. After years of economic turmoil, Japan has found sure footing again thanks to a boom in the marketplace caused by the Korean War. The gang war that raged in the first film as the newly formed yakuza gangs that emerged from the ashes of the atom bomb has simmered down a spell, though the days of peace and prosperity are hardly stable; and the number of gangs and players on the board that made part one such a headache to follow at times have been pared down to a relatively lean and more manageable number.
The action picks up shortly after the end of part one. Young Shoji Yamanaka (Kin’ya Kitaôji, who played Ogami itto in the 200v television series version of Lone Wolf and Cub) of the Muraoki Clan gets sent to prison for stabbing a couple gambling cheats, and while there he meets Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), who is currently doing time for killing the boss of the Doi Clan in part one. When he gets out on parole, Shoji meets Uehara Yasuko (Meiko Kaji, Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion), niece of the Muraoki Boss and also manages to get on the bad side of young blood Katsutoshi Ootomo (Sonny Chiba), the quintessential yakuza without honor, humanity, or decent fashion sense. Ootomo is head of the Ootomo Clan’s gambling ring and a relative of the elder of the gang. But things aren’t all rosy between Katsutoshi and the mainstream of the gang. It’s that old chestnut again, the one about the young maniacs who are upset because the stodgy old timers are holding them back and refusing to pass the torch to the next generation, possibly because the next generation insists on wearing loud Aloha shirts and constantly screaming like lunatics. But by this point — roughly ten minutes in — the names and gangs are flying so fast and furious that one needs to devote several watchings of the film to developing some sort of flow chart to keep track of everything.
At the very least, the viewer can relax a little knowing that despite the many characters, most of them are background players. One not need struggle to keep track of five hundred different names and faces all betraying one another and stabbing one another in the back like in the first film. The action in part two boils down primarily to Shoji and Katsutoshi as the former falls for the boss’s niece and seeks his fortunes as an assassin while the latter fumes in unbridled bug-eyed glee as he plots to take over the Ootomi gang and return things to the good ol’ state of chaos, violence, and war that Katsutoshi and his young crew found to be so much fun. Shoji has trouble since the niece is the widow of a Japanese war hero, and the boss doesn’t take too kindly to Shoji poking around in her personal life. Katsutoshi has a hard time for the obvious reason: old men in charge of vast criminal empires hate to be shot and beheaded and things of that nature.
All the while, Bunta Sugawara, once out of jail, does his best to run his own little group and stay uninvolved in the politics of the greater yakuza landscape. Of course, seeing as everyone thinks of him as the last honorable man in the underworld, they’re always looking to him to mediate differences and solve their problems. Of course, a war is eventually going to break out among rival clans, and plenty of backs will be stabbed. One of the film’s best and most energetic scenes involves an assassination attempt perpetrated by Katsutoshi on the Muraoki boss. It’s all screaming, insanity, blood, sword waving, and guys in their underwear falling down stairs.
Anyone familiar with the first film is going to be familiar with this follow-up. In fact, since the entire Battles without Honor and Humanity series concerns the same group of people and was directed by Fukasaku over a period of just a couple years, they play less like separate movies and more like one long, bloody saga. The separate films are really only convenient chapter breaks that allow you to come up for breath and try to figure out which clan is allied with which other clan, and who just swindled who (you won’t succeed). That said, there is something about part two that sets is apart from the other four films in the series. Fukasaku was never one to rest on his laurels, and the obvious course for a sequel would be to simply continue following the exploits of Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono and the various Shakespearian levels of plotting and machination that characterize the first film (and, as it would turn out, subsequent entries as well).
Instead part two focuses on relatively minor characters. Shoji is a nobody, and his struggle is a relatively minor one when placed against the greater backdrop of Machiavellian manipulation running rampant in the yakuza world. And Sonny Chiba’s Katsutoshi, for all his bluster and big floppy hats, is just a two-bit punk. The major players here are all in the background, and in place of them we’re afforded a more intimate look at the small potatoes who, despite their lack of rank, manage to affect the course of events. Think of the guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. How many people even remember his name without having to look it up (it was Gavrilo Princip)? And yet this guy, basically by sheer dumb luck, manage to kill a man and, in turn, spark the First World War, which because of the punitive nature of the treaty that concluded it, helped spark the Second World War. Funny what a single nobody can do. Shoji and Katsutoshi are a lot like Princip: nobodies who get their fifteen minutes on the big stage. The series would return to what made the first film so popular and difficult to follow, and thus part two serves as sort of a little breather, an aside almost, a look at a couple of the small lives affected by and caught up in big events.
Stylistically, Battles Without Honor and Humanity II follows part one’s lead. Fukasaku employs an almost news report-like approach to his film. There is lots of shaky handheld camera work thrust into the middle of the action, a novel approach at the time which is still used today. It works here, where everything is presented in a gritty, street-level fashion and the action involves only a few people. As with part one, Fukasaku plays hard and fast with violence, presenting it not as heroic or graceful, but as mean, gory, and perpetrated by people who are basically horrible. You’ll find nothing of the honorable criminals of older yakuza films nor of the heroic bloodshed poet-assassins that dominated the 1980s-90s thanks to John Woo. These guys just want to cut your ear off. Even Shoji’s battle for the love of a good woman is presented with unflinching brutality and nary a moment during which you can relax and say, well, for this one time, he’s having a golden moment. Everything is going to end bad. Even the road there is hard and unrewarding. If these movies are Shakespearian in the number of alliances and double-crosses they contain, then they’re decidedly un-Shakespearian in their total lack of romanticism about anything, from war to love.
The performances are all very good, although Sonny Chiba may go just a tad over the top from time to time. Pulling back a distance from Bunta’s character allows Kinya Kitaoji to shine as the beleaguered Shoji, and he manages to invoke sympathy in the viewer without ever actually becoming a completely nice guy. He is, after all, a yakuza thug and killer. If he’s our good guy, it’s only because Katsutoshi is so much worse. It’s wise of Fukasaku to limit Sugawara’s screentime, because once he steps into a scene, he commands everything around him, and you forget just about everything else, except maybe Sonny Chiba flapping his arms wildly and snarling in the background.
That Bunta is seen here only as a background character eking out a living as the head of a tiny gang that tries not to involve itself too heavily in yakuza politics also whets your whistle for later installments, because everyone knows that Bunta will be the main focus again soon enough. Until that happens, however (which doesn’t take long), Battles Without Honor and Humanity II is a worthy and enjoyable follow-up to the first film. Because it limits its focus, it’s a more accessible film than others in the series. But let’s face it, as good as part two may be, we just can’t wait to see Bunta Sugawara and his flat top back in the foreground.